As pretty much all of my Mormon and former-Mormon readers will know by now, Boyd Kenneth Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died on Friday, July 3, at the age of 90. I haven’t been surprised at all at the reactions from different camps. A great deal of vitriol has been heaped on his corpse in the last few days (my personal favorite: “Rot in hell, you bloated toad”), and, of course, the faithful mourn the passing of a great man who loved God and painted in his spare time (M. Russell Ballard said, “He was truly an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, he represented the Savior of the world”).
So, what was he: the Savior’s representative, or a vicious old toad? Quite clearly, how we see his life and legacy depends entirely on how we view the church he served for so long. Much has been said about Packer’s role in the September Six affair in 1993, his apparent preference for faith-promoting history over things “that are true [but] not very useful,” and his retrograde attitudes towards sexuality and, in particular, homosexuality. He clearly was a lightning rod who did not shy away from controversy. As Dallin Oaks said of him, “You can’t stage-manage a grizzly bear.”
I had only a few minor brushes with the man. Like all Mormon boys of my generation, I was well-acquainted with his talk, “To Young Men Only,” which, although it spawned countless jokes about “little factories,” made it clear to me that masturbation was a terrible evil, so I vowed to stop, and was quite successful (so much so that my urologist tells me that certain health issues I have had are a direct result of my not “stimulating my little factory”). I learned from Elder Packer that it wasn’t enough not to masturbate, but I was to control my thoughts with such vigilance that I would never allow my mind to wander to anything lustful. More than anything, this teaching is what filled my young mind with shame and guilt, which would remain for many years.
My first real-life brush with President Packer came in December 1983, a couple of weeks after I received my mission call. My birthday is in November, so I had agonized over whether I should squeeze in another semester of college before leaving or enter the MTC right when I turned 19. I finally decided to go back to school, which meant delaying my mission for a couple of months. When my roommate and I heard then-Elder Packer was coming to Provo to give a “missionary fireside,” we were excited, and we arrived early at the Provo Tabernacle to get good seats. Elder Packer spoke about how selfish it is to delay a mission for any reason, such as education or finances. I sat there, slowly shrinking in my seat, burning with shame for having acted so selfishly. Had I been more faithful, I thought, I would have been in the MTC at that very moment, instead of feeling all that guilt. After the meeting, my roommate insisted that we get in line to shake Elder Packer’s hand. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to look him in the eye, knowing I had shirked my duty and that he knew. As we got closer to him, the shame kept on building. Eventually, he put out his hand and shook mine. He looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you going to serve a mission, young man?” I told him I had already received my mission call and would be leaving for Bolivia in a few weeks. He patted my hand, smiled, and said, “Well, that’s just fine.” I was so relieved. Clearly, I had been forgiven, but I vowed I would never again put my own needs ahead of the Lord’s.
The next time I came across President Packer in person was in 1993, when I was working at the Church Office Building. Our editing staff had been invited to the All-Church Coordinating Council, which was a meeting of everyone in management in the building. We met in the auditorium, and we heard from M. Russell Ballard, President Packer, and finally, President Thomas Monson. I don’t remember Elder Ballard’s talk at all, but I do have a vivid memory of President Monson glaring at us over glasses he’d borrowed from Neal Maxwell, berating us for our poor efforts to spread the gospel message. But everyone else remembers President Packer’s talk, now (in)famous for his belief that the church faced three great dangers: “the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.” What struck me at the time was less his calling out of people who were “facing the wrong way,” but more that he read letters from members who were obviously distraught, yet his tone was disdainful and even mocking (the official transcript does not include the laughter he elicited at the letter-writers’ expense). I found the whole thing deeply troubling, and I remember thinking, as the auditorium rang with raucous laughter, “This is not a man of God.” I felt terribly guilty for thinking that, but I couldn’t shake it.
The last encounter I had with him was in 1996, when I attended the dedication of the Mt. Timpanogos Temple in American Fork, Utah. Our bishopric had received tickets to the celestial room, meaning that we would be in the same room as the prophet (Gordon B. Hinckley) when he spoke and offered the dedicatory prayer. At the time, we had 5 small children, and although we had tried to get out of the house early, we didn’t arrive until about 15 minutes before the meeting would begin. To our surprise, the room had been filled from the back, going forward, meaning that our bishop, who had arrived 4 hours early, was seated in the very back row. My wife and I, on the other hand, were in the second row, with only the secretary to the Quorum of Seventy and his wife sitting in the row ahead of us (I knew him from my days at the Church Office Building). Only a couple of things stand out to me: first was President Hinckley saying, as near as I can remember it, “That you are here means that you are the best people in the world, that is, if you were honest in your worthiness interviews.” I remember digging through my brain, trying to find some failing I’d missed, but I ended up feeling pretty good about myself. President Packer was to lead the “Hosanna Shout,” which is the point during the dedication when everyone stands, waves a white handkerchief in the air, and shouts, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna, to God and the Lamb!” three times, followed by, “Amen, Amen, and Amen!” He gave us some background history, and then led the shout. I thought he seemed bored in his matter-of-fact recitation of the “shout,” which was more of a low-key chant than anything. I’m guessing he was aiming at solemn dignity, but it sounded mechanical and uninspiring to me. I thought maybe I just wasn’t in tune with the Spirit.
And that’s pretty much it. I didn’t know the man and certainly didn’t know his heart. Part of me admires his dedication to the LDS church. His entire adult life was spent serving the church in one way or another. After a career in the Church Education System (mostly as an administrator), he was called into full-time church service as an Assistant to the Twelve when he was only 37 years old. Eight years later he was called as an apostle, so more than half his life was spent as a full-time church leader, with almost exactly half his life as an apostle. Anyone who saw him the last few years knows he was in very poor health, and yet he still served his church to the best of his ability. He was, by all accounts, a dedicated and loving husband and father to 10 children, and despite what some have said, it seems to me that he lived a fairly modest lifestyle.
At the same time, I completely understand why so many people disliked the man, maybe even hated him (for the record, I have trouble mustering hatred for anyone, so I don’t). His teachings, regardless of their intention, put me and many others through a great deal of unnecessary guilt and shame. A friend tells me that Packer’s teachings about masturbation drove him to attempt suicide at age 45. I know a lot of gay and bisexual members (and their spouses) who have suffered so much because of his condemnation of them. Am I angry? Do I blame him for putting people through all that? It would be easy to do so, but I don’t blame him, at least not entirely and not specifically him.. He was simply expressing what everyone in LDS culture knew about sexuality: outside of marriage, it was not to be expressed or even thought of. I’m sure he believed that as fervently as I did, so I can’t blame him for saying what I probably would have said had I been in his position. Did those teachings mess me up? Undoubtedly, but, whatever I experienced, those teachings didn’t originate with him, and they were expressed just as forcefully by others, such as Spencer W. Kimball.
It’s also easy to single him out for his role in quieting dissent and keeping a lid on those aspects of church history that are “not uplifting.” But again, he was merely giving voice to certain strains within the church as an institution. Alone, he could not possibly have orchestrated the excommunication of six very different personalities; the September Six happened because that’s where the church was in 1993. That the institution’s goals coincided with his beliefs is more a problem with the institution. Packer made an easy target, perhaps because people wanted to see him as an aberration, an outlier, so they could distance the church from its actions.
I suspect he recognized his role as lightning rod. He took it upon himself to attract the attention and vitriol of those who would otherwise understand that his “controversial” statements were simply restatements of what the church was already doing. Some might call that courageous, but I think he probably enjoyed it.
In the end, Boyd Kenneth Packer was just like the rest of us: complex, a mass of contradictions, and utterly human. May he rest in peace. And may all those who suffered shame and guilt because of his words find forgiveness–both for themselves, and for him.